July 16th, 2007
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We hear, from birth parents, adoptive parents and professionals alike, that to have a working and strong open adoption, the air waves of communication need to be open and working from both ends. As adults, we understand that at the very core of every successful relationship is a successful communications center. The flow of information from one side of the adult triad to the other is absolutely vital in getting through some of the hardest transitions.

And yet some people don’t want birth parents to be that open and honest.

I’m continuously frustrated with the double standard that first families are faced with when it comes to communicating with the adoptive family. Over and over on the forums, we see adoptive families given advice on how to proceed with certain situations that basically lead to birth parents being “put in their place.” While boundaries are absolutely necessary to succeed with the open relationship, I’m hesitant when adoptive parents are directed to put boundaries on the information that is shared instead of how that information is shared.


Let’s get less vague: it comes down to some adoptive parents not being able, for whatever their personal reason, to process birth parents’ emotional issues as they continue their healing process. Grief is not easy and it doesn’t always follow a set of rules. (In fact, I’ve described it as “messy” before!) They don’t want to hear that the birth parent misses their child. They don’t want to hear that, had things been different or if they could make the decision over again, they wouldn’t have placed. They don’t want to hear that sometimes adoption really hurts on many different levels. And then other adoptive parents chime in and say things like, “Well, they shouldn’t be telling YOU these things! Tell them to pay for counseling!”

Change the situation. Your Husband is having an issue with something that you are doing in your marriage. Even the small things, done with enough frequency, can become something large between two people. However, you are unwilling to listen to what he has to say because your train of thought is, “Hey, you married me. It’s your fault. Get some counseling and deal with it because it hurts me to hear you talk honestly about me or something that involves me.” Instead of being open to hearing what he has to say about something, you are turning off the air waves of communication before they are ever truly opened. You get no where in learning about yourself or your husband. Your relationship doesn’t grow and, in fact, it probably begins to wither.

This is no different. The advice that adoptive parents shouldn’t have to listen to birth parents as they process their grief, which does involve verbalizing hurt, sadness and loss, does neither side of the adult triad any good. Instead, the advice that should be offered to those trying to figure out what to do in such a situation should hint to the fact that it’s not what the birth parents are saying but how they are saying it. Adoptive parents faced with a birth family that is in the midst of processing intense grief and loss issues could be best served by telling their child’s first family something like this: “I know you are having a very hard time processing these emotions and I want you to know that I am here for you during this time. I will listen to what you have to say with an open heart and an open mind. However, I will not be open if you take to personally blaming me or my family for your grief and loss or if you present your feelings in an attacking manner.” As long as the birth parents are not blaming your family for their loss or “yelling” their emotions at you, there is no reason that you cannot listen to their pain.

If you are finding it personally uncomfortable to listen to how much your child’s birth mother misses her during various situations, perhaps you need to ask yourself why. Perhaps, when you’re asking other adoptive parents for advice and they state that your child’s birth family needs counseling, you should seek it yourself. (Does that sound insulting? Wear the birth parent’s shoes for a moment.) If you’re having trouble understanding that your child’s birth parents are going to need to process that grief and loss and that it does, in an open adoption, involve your presence and your participation at times, seeking out the reasons in your own psyche as to why you’re mentally avoiding it could benefit you all.

Birth parents are not to be feared simply because they are going through a hard emotional time. Those feelings ebb an flow over the years. Telling them to come back when they have their act together does nothing to improve the situation. Listening with an empathetic heart could do wonders for your relationship. Setting boundaries for the way the information is passed from one to the other can help create a comfort zone for both parties. True relationships aren’t only about sharing the good times and the good feelings. Accepting the bad times and empathizing with the not-so-happy emotions can bring the two sides of the adult triad together… if we’re willing to take that leap of faith in truly communicating with one another instead of just saying that we do and glossing over the bad things with a coat of smiles. Real relationships have real problems. Ignoring them or saying that you don’t want to hear about them doesn’t make them disappear. Be a part of the solution!

Don’t let your relationship wither because you felt uncomfortable listening to true open and honest communication. Grow instead!

For more on dealing with grief, read:

1. Quantitative Pain: No Grief Gold Medal.

2. Core Issues in Adoption: Grief.

3. When Words Hurt: No Birthmothers Allowed.

Photo Credit.

19 Responses to “Why Won’t You Listen to Me?”

  1. erin_d_a says:

    It is hard to hear that the queen is missing the bee. Here is this delightful little person and she brings us so much joy, but to know that her mom is missing that joy is HARD. Yet, I want to know what the queen is thinking. Not only is it important for our relationship as the mothers of this little girl, but someday we can sit down with her and tell her about the joy and the pain. She’ll know that she was wanted by her first mom, loved, and missed. She’ll be able to hear the story from me too, because I’m living it with her other mom. I can say, I cried with her and mourned her loss and YOUR (bee’s) loss.

    It is important that we understand and can communicate to our children how much their first parents wanted them, and how much they miss them. I don’t ever want the bee to doubt that she was wanted and loved by her first mother, and I wonder sometimes if part of the reason that adopted kids wonder is because their adoptive parents can’t put it into words because they haven’t been in it with the first parents.

  2. Erin; you said:

    It is hard to hear that the queen is missing the bee.


    Yet, I want to know what the queen is thinking.

    And that’s it: exactly. If those in our lives, in the most important of relationships in our lives, only shared with us the stuff that was easy for us to hear, our relationships would never grow to the next level. They wouldn’t be real. They wouldn’t serve any purpose for any party involved.

    Quite frankly, I want to hear when I’ve hurt or upset Munchkin’s Mom, as much as it is painful to know that I’ve done something out of line or done something that crossed a boundary but… how will I learn if I’m never told? Same goes for my Husband. Same goes for parenting Nicholas: how will he learn if I never share the “other” stuff, the stuff that isn’t always easy or happy.

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. John says:

    Jenna, you are right, communications is important. The adoptive family does need to know when you are in a rough spot, and, if you are comfortable saying, what the issue is.

    Let me be the contrarian. If you need marital counseling, you don’t go to your next door neighbor. If you have bad congestion and need a medical opinion you don’t go to your co-workers. You go to the people best able to help you with the problem you face. Few adoptive families are social workers or therapists. They are not the approprate unloading area for your issues with adoption.

    When you set up the open adoption agreement, the adoptive family did not agree to become your buddy for life, or your therapist. They have their own issues, raising your child. That can be challenging also.

    By all means do let the other family know when you are in a difficult place. Respect their role though, and do not insist that they become your therapist. John

  4. Deb Donatti says:

    I know that you are framing this from your own perspective as a birthparent, but it does sound like it is mostly adoptive parents who in error when communications break down. I would say that is not always the case, and there can be valid reasons for adoptive parents stepping back from the relationship.
    In my own situation we have become the target for the anger and frustrations of my child’s birthfamily, hurtful because we have done everything possible to BE family with them, and also because they refuse to see that their directing their anger and guilt at us IS harmful to our daughter.
    Of course we would love for them to be willing to talk to us and work out our differences (and have pleaded countless times, only making matters worse apparently), but again both parties must be willing, and they just are not at this time.
    While I understand being able to “buck up” and hear about the pain of my child’s birthfamily (and I definitely have), I refuse to accept blame and anger from them concerning it. Just gritting your teeth and taking abusive behavior does nothing to help the children involved, whether you are a birthparent or an adoptive parent who is receiving it. I agree all parties should try to work it out if possible, but everyone has to be willing and active in the solution.
    I also do not see anything wrong with suggesting that birthfamily who are having difficulty seek counsel/therapy/help. Unless the adoptive parents are counselors, they are not in a position to provide that help, and even if they were the personal connections involved, the dichotomy of the relationship, would not make it a good idea in my opinion.
    I think your child is very blessed to have two sets of parents who understand the complications of an adoptive relationship, and are ALL willing to work hard at it.
    Keep talking, people are listening, and perhaps it will get better for those who follow, even if some of us may never see our own expectations realized.

  5. John; if I had said, “be their therapist,” that would warrant your comment string.

    Deb; I wasn’t talking about when birth parents cause the break down because it wouldn’t have created a coherent post. Obviously there are times that birth parents are at fault for the communication break down, which is why I briefly touched on setting boundaries, but again, one can only include so many ideas in a post and walk away with a feeling of coherence.

  6. Jan Baker says:

    “Let me be the contrarian.”

    Sorry, I am laughing too hysterically to comment further now!

    Okay, I composed myself. Jenna did not suggest that adoptive parents provide therapy for birth parents and/or take care of them. Nor did she imply that all communication problems are all the adoptive parents’ fault.

  7. miriam says:

    “birth parents are going to need to process that grief and loss and that it does, in an open adoption, involve your presence and your participation at times,”
    “some adoptive parents not being able, for whatever their personal reason, to process birth parents’ emotional issues as they continue their healing process.”

    I think that sounds like something beyond a conversation, and like something some people would prefer to have some training for. Not just because they have fear of the unknown or fear for themselves, but because they might not feel qualified to help directly with that. If a family believes this to be true of themselves, should they not pursue an open adoption?

    I sincerely don’t mean offense, but is an open adoption really like a marriage? I’ve heard that before, but I have a preconception that the primary family bonds are between parents and children; I think that is why I feel I have so much to learn yet about the concept of open adoption. Isn’t the loss of that “first tier” relationship why there is so much grief for the birthfamily? It seems that some of the conversation you describe should belong to that most intimate level.

    Again, I am totally aware that I’m an outsider to this and would like to hear more, so please don’t make me a contrarian as well.

  8. erin_d_a says:

    “I sincerely don’t mean offense, but is an open adoption really like a marriage?”

    Yup. When we agreed to adopt the queens daughter we entered a lifelong relationship with her. Something that has to be worked at and built and will have bumps and hurdles that have to be gotten over. NO I’m not as close to her as I am to my husband, but it is a lifetime commitment.

  9. When you married your partner, you took a life long vow. When my daughter’s parents adopted her, they made a life long promise not only to HER but to ME and they HONOR it.

    Sounds the same to me. (Obviously on different levels.) Lifetime commitment is lifetime commitment.

    Of course, it’s a shame when people don’t want to recognize the importance of EITHER commitment. Children are hurt in BOTH a divorce AND the closing of an adoption. No two ways around that.

  10. soblessed says:

    interesting post, Jenna.

    Yes, in any lifelong committment, communication is essential. But a few things need to be in place before this type of communication can take place.

    1. The concept of an “adoption marriage” needs to be fully explored, and agreed upon, by both parties. Some parents, be they adoptive or bithparents, may not be comfortable with that level of openness, so here is where good pre-match counseling by a competent worker comes in.

    2. Related to number one is a good knowledge of what not just each set of parents’, but each individual parent’s, communication style is. What seems to one parent to be a reasonable way and amount of information to address the issue of her greiving may be totally overwhelming to another parent. Not necessarily because they are on “opposite” sides of the fence but because people’s communication styles can be so vastly different. I know with DH, he often needs time to process something I’ve said. Even if I’m bursting with angst and the need to “let it out” (which is perfectly valid), I’ve learned that bringing it up again before he’s done processing is not productive (equally valid). He feels overwhelmed and withdraws, further complicating the original issue. A good solution for me has been to take the issue in discussion to a close friend or a counselor. It’s a good compensatory strategy. My need to let it out and be heard is met while DH’s need to process at his own pace is resolved also. When he’s ready, we talk and resolve. Even in the best of marriages exist a need to compensate for others’ communication styles.

    3. Open communication goes both ways. Even as birthparents request to be “heard” in their grieving, so too do adoptive parents have their grieving and issues to process. Hopefully, open communication extends to adoptive parent issues, too, such as: grief over infertility, the “loss” of a biological child, the constant need to deal with the “s/he looks different” questions in a way that is healthy for both aparent and child, possible difficulty dealing with the closeness and frequent presence of the birthparents, difficulties in parenting styles between the aparents, anxieties over discipline, etc? I would imagine these scenarios would be as hard for a birthparent to process, especially in connection to her child, as the posted scenario would be for adoptive parents. Again, there would be a need to respect the listening party’s communication style.

    And, hopefully, the relationship, like a good marriage, becomes stronger and more resiliant over time.

  11. miriam says:

    I totally understand the point you’re making about it being a lifetime commitment and agree that a family should not go back on that to close an open adoption.

    What I was questioning is the level of responsibility toward the birthmom specifically regarding her need to “process that grief and loss”. I meant that it seems to me that the people most qualified to have those conversation are your most intimate relationships and professionals.

    I was not arguing for a family’s right to cease contact, or anything about the lifelong nature of the commitment.

  12. John says:

    Jan, I’m glad to provide some laughter. I actually did think I was being a contrarian.

    Jenna, they made a lifetime committment to You??? Wow, that is a strange adoption. Every adoption I have ever heard of involves the adoptive parents making a lifetime committment to the CHILD. I think your husband is the one who made the lifetime committment to you. John

  13. erin_d_a says:

    We made a lifetime commitment to our daughters mother. We committed to be in her life, and to raise her daughter in the best way we could. Yes our first commitment lies with our daughter, but we did commit to her mother also. In fact we turned down a placement because we didn’t feel we could build a relationship with mom.

    As far as helping her to process her grief, no I’m not sure a professional is always the best option. Though often (usually) I think that you DO need professional help in processing such a tramatic grief in your life. But when I went through some pretty major losses, my therapist was great, but often I just wanted my friends and family. They could and did help me much more in many ways.

    If we had the financial resources and mom wasn’t getting help anywhere else we would be willing to help her get professional help. While our first responsibility lies with our family, we also know how important it is TO OUR CHILDREN that our children’s birth families are healthy too. And if there is a way that we can facilitate that healthiness, we will be happy and willing to do what we can.

  14. John; welcome to the age of open adoption and either good faith agreements or legally binding open adoptions that are signed by parties. Not only did they make a commitment to me and my daughter but I made a commitment to them. Perhaps you could join us in this era and either accept that your situation is VASTLY different or move along.

  15. wingsofafairy says:

    First, hi Jenna!

    Second, this comment is for John. I am the adoptive mother of Munchkin. And, no, we never agreed to be Jenna’s therapist or “buddy for life”. However, we ARE friends. She’s one of my best friends. As with all friends, I am there for her, whatever the issue. Yes, adoption included.

    As far as making a committment to Jenna, yes we did. A committment which encompasses everything it means to be Ariana’s parents and everything it means to uphold our MORALS. (Since open adoption isn’t LEGALLY binding)

    If I needed marital counseling, no, I wouldn’t go to my next door neighbor. They aren’t involved in the marriage at all. I would go to counseling, AND my husband, since you know, he IS involved in the marriage. What purpose would it serve to not let him know about it? Problems can’t be solved without communication and knowledge.

    OK,I’m rambling.

    *steps down*

  16. Heather says:

    When my son’s first parents placed him with us, and we all agreed to an open adoption, we became family to one another. They are his family and we are his family, so we are also family to each other. How can I see that as anything but a lifelong commitment?

  17. John says:

    Jenna, you said that you made a commitment to the adoptive parents, what was it? In your opinion, is it ok for the adoptive parents to say, ‘I can’t handle this particular subject’?

    Wingsofafairy, Jenna’s post seems to imply that she has an almost unlimited right to vent. Do you feel there are any limits that you would expect to be observed? It sure seems like the birthparent feels a sense of ownership of the adoptive parents. John

  18. John; You are obviously unwilling to even open your mind to things like the easy flow of communication, even on hard topics, commitment and the fact that all birth parents aren’t how you want to view them. Please just move on. You’re continuing to insult my relationship with my daughter’s family and a slew of other birth/adoptive family relationships in the process. Have a really great day.

  19. edensbirthmomma says:

    I realize that most people today do not understand what is entailed in a truly open adoption. My daughter’s parents realize this as well. We are constantly faced with person appalled that we actually engaged in face-to-face visits with constant phone and email contact in between. I know, it’s unimaginable that just like we choose are life partners and our friends whom we call family that we could actually select our child’s family and choose each other to be one family. Unfathomable. And yet, that is the joy which I share with my daughter and her family. We did not choose simply to place/raise this child. We chose each other. we would stand up for each other and be there for one another just like family. I, for one, am proud to have my daughter’s mom and dad as my family. And no amount of misunderstanding and unwillingness to accept this fact will change the fact that they are my family.

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